Catholics entered Holy Week by witnessing one of their faith’s iconic churches — built to honor the mother of Jesus, Notre Dame Cathedral de Paris — suffer major damage due to fire.
As news reports began appearing late Monday morning, with images and videos capturing flames high atop the 850-year-old sacred structure, the world watched with utter horror. What took some two centuries to complete sustained major damage in a few hours.
Crowds that gathered within view of the cathedral witnessed Notre Dame Cathedral’s famed spire, which was under renovation and surrounded by scaffolding, light the Paris sky in bright orange flames and smoke, then quickly collapse. Along with the landmark spire, the entire cathedral roof went up in flames.
Church leaders worldwide offered condolences to the church of France. “We express our closeness to the French Catholics and to the people of Paris,” said the Vatican in a statement April 15. “We pray for the firefighters and for all those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation.”
The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, also issued a statement, saying that the fire “is shocking and saddens us all, for this particular catheral is not only a majestic church, it is also a world treasure.”
Notre Dame Cathedral had fallen into disrepair for years. Philippe Villeneuve, architect in chief of historic monuments in France, told Time Magazine in 2017 that pollution and the passing of time had put the cathedral in dangerous need of repair. “We need to replace the ruined stones. We need to replace the joints with traditional materials. This is going to be extensive,” he said.
While the French Ministry of Culture has paid more than $2 million a year for basic repairs, it wasn’t enough to stave off the famed cathedral’s decay. The fire may have hastened fundraising to help repair structural weaknesses that existed, as well as new ones.
The cathedral’s decay also served as a metaphor for the crumbling faith in France.
Like other western nations, France has been facing a crisis of faith for many years. Yet, what we witnessed during the cathedral fire — a unified voice of sorrow — may be the first step in a renewed interest in practice of the faith.
For example, a viral video on social media showed dozens of French Catholics kneeling and singing the “Ave Maria” while the fire raged a few blocks away. Comments by viewers of the video on Twitter were unusually respectful, with some people asking what was being sung. The stranglehold of secularism may end up challenged by curiosity about the cathedral’s religious foundation.
It is too early to know all of the damage sustained by the fire, or what priceless religious art was saved or lost. But as Fr. John Girotti, associate moderator of the diocesan Curia and Compass columnist told WFRV-TV, there is much hope, symbolized by the holiest of days on the Christian calendar and culminating with Easter and the resurrection of Jesus.
“We will celebrate Good Friday this Friday when we will remember the crucifixion,” said Fr. Girotti, “but three days later we will celebrate Easter, which is the resurrection, and so I think symbolically in all of this, the faith of the people in France will rise again and I am certain that this beautiful cathedral will be rebuilt.”
This weekend, as we celebrate the risen Christ, let us join our prayers with people around that world, asking that Notre Dame Cathedral and the faith in France, both weakened over the centuries, be rescued from the brink of disaster.